If the work of babyhood is all about sleep, in toddlerdom the practice becomes managing children’s feelings—plus your own feelings, because how they’re feeling is making you insane.
Before I had a toddler, dealing with tantrums sounded like a normal part of raising kids. I’m a reasonable person who gets along with others, so I trusted that whatever came up we’d work it out. I thought this while dealing mostly with adults, whom I could mostly keep it together around. I had no context for needing to be somewhere on time while someone that I made and love very much grips the doorframe screaming and refuses to leave the house.
I’d heard of tantrums, yes, but I didn’t have many words for feelings. Wasn’t that just when someone cried? I heard all the parenting gurus talking about feelings: Tina Payne Bryson, Janet Lansbury, Harvey Karp, Mona Delahooke. And I started having feelings, BIG FEELINGS, because my 2.5-year-old would not go to sleep. Booted from her crib to a proper bed, she discovered that she could go anywhere, anytime. (Don’t remind me that one day she’ll start driving.) My voice became hoarse from screaming at her. Triggered and exhausted, I showed up to parenting lectures and downloaded podcasts. I started to broaden my feelings vocabulary, naming my tantrums with statements like, “I am mad!” and “I feel frustrated.” When I learned to announce to the universe that I was about to blow, it took the edge off enough to not actually scream. When I could get my logical left brain to jump over and diffuse the emotion flooding in my feeling right brain, I could mostly stay in control.
That trigger of my daughter not going to bed when I expected her to sent my nervous system into high alert. My needs were in jeopardy of not being met, so my anxiety started repeating that I’d NEVER get her to bed. As my thoughts and heart rate surged, I could not ignore what I was feeling. I could not stuff it and deal with it later. I WAS MAD! I WAS FRUSTRATED! And it would be very human of me to wail on my child. And it was also possible for me to start telling myself a story.
Hold on. I just remembered—I have to tell you what happened at preschool the other day. We go to Cottage Co-op Nursery School, which is in an old craftsman house. To make room for two separate classes in the backyard, the area is divided by a beautiful, chest-high, shadowbox fence. I was working in the classroom fulfilling my co-op duties. One of the 4-year-old students was upset because her mom was substitute teaching in the Small Yard, while she was confined to the Big Yard. The girl could see her mom through the slats in the fence, where she was locked on and wailing. Her volume oscillated between a low whine and screeches loud enough to turn heads. We were all hoping she’d work out her feelings on her own. We knew she was safe and we just needed to give her some space. By snack time she’d joined the group and was quietly eating until her mom needed to grab something from our side of the yard. Her mom walked swiftly by. Wailing resumed. Her mom crouched down to tell her daughter how much she loved her and that she couldn’t stay, then she quickly passed through the gate and out of sight. “Good,” I thought. “Her mom set a boundary and moved on. That’s a healthy habit in parenting.” More whimpering and wailing.
I remembered an activity that our preschool director taught me. I found a piece of paper and folded it in half. I sat next to the crying child and drew stick pictures of the girl and her mom, separated by a fence. Both figures wore frowns and tears fell from their pencil-dot eyes. I told the girl this was right now, that she and her mom were separated, and I could imagine that she felt sad. On the other side of the fold, I drew a big red heart. Inside the heart the stick figures were together, holding hands and smiling. “This is after ‘The Goodbye Song,’” I explained. “You and your mommy will be together. And I see you smiling here. I bet you’ll feel happy.”
“I will feel so happy,” she said. “I just love to be with my mommy.”
The girl grabbed my page. She held it close to her body and ran off into the playground. She was fine the rest of the day.
The cheered-up little girl really loves her mommy. When she’s away from her mommy she feels sad. She can’t always be with her mommy, and that’s reality. No one’s trying to make her cry. Everyone’s trying to get through their day and do the best they can.
Looking at her story outside of herself, detailed onto the page, the girl’s brain could sort out where it was and where it was going. Unnerving repetitive thoughts, “I’ll never see my mommy,” “I’ll always miss my mommy,” were stunted by looking at the heart and smiling figures. The brain could see that it was headed somewhere safe and good. The nervous system came down from high alert, and the child could focus beyond the threat of not being with her mommy.
I heard someone call it a “feelings tunnel.” One you’ve entered, you have to drive all the way through to the other side. When a toddler’s crying, it’s not helpful to her brain to shut her feelings down without acknowledging them. When comforting her, tone is key. You can’t deadpan, “It’s OK, don’t cry.” You come in close, take a big breath, look at her in the face, and say, “I can see you’re getting upset. That looks really hard.” Remember, you’re providing calm to a nervous system, so you do a big, long—awkwardly long—always attentive pause.
Children react to this kind of attention in all different ways. Some will push you away or grunt or get up and run away. Sometimes to end the pause, a child will tell you a story and exit the tunnel. Sometimes they’re just too crazed to respond, so you can start drawing like I did at preschool. A goofy move or an unexpected action can diffuse intense situations. The empathy and connection must come first (it’s not helpful to distract away from feelings), but try anything to help the brain jump over to logic and reasoning.
Humans are all so different. We care about infinite people, places, and things, so expect to observe and troubleshoot. You’re not trying to solve anything, but you understand how the system works (big feeling, commit to the tunnel, witness the feeling, find a way to jump left). As kids get older, beware: These practices can breed some delightfully weird and treasured family inside jokes.
Back to my own anger and out-of-controlness around my wide-awake toddler. I could fold my paper in thirds and draw my daughter out of bed and mommy with a red face and fire coming out of her ears. Then I could draw my daughter out of bed and mommy taking deep breaths and thinking, this is what bedtime looks like right now. In my last scene, my daughter’s eyes are closed and I’m eating popcorn and solving Wordle. I’ve found some light at the end of a good, long day.
Author Cori Doerrfeld beautifully tells the story of witnessing another’s feelings in her bestselling children’s book The Rabbit Listened. The Spanish edition, El Conejo Escuchó, was released in March.